March 7, 2017
BVLOS capabilities rapidly expanding in ND
Beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight testing is a crucial step toward fully integrating commercial large UAS and small drone operations into public airspace. North Dakota is putting in place a variety of capabilities that will maximize operators’ ability to prove their technologies and aircraft.
In late December 2016, the FAA granted authorization to the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems (NPUAS) Test Site for large UAS BVLOS flights. Aircraft will take off from Grand Sky using the Grand Forks Air Force Base runway and will be allowed to fly in a 60 nautical-mile radius through civilian-controlled airspace without chase planes.
The first-of-its-kind approval is the result of approximately 18 months of planning and regulatory work. Flights are expected to commence this spring. Current Grand Sky tenants General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. and Northrop Grumman are expected to be the first large UAS operators to utilize this advanced capability, although a variety of other industry players, from private companies to NASA, will also be eager to take advantage of the BVLOS testing and development range.
Additionally, Harris Corp. recently announced a partnership with North Dakota which will allow small UAS to conduct BVLOS flights in an area stretching from Grand Forks to Fargo (approximately 60 miles). A $500,000, two-year Research North Dakota grant, will allow Harris to develop a regional network in partnership with the University of North Dakota and the NPUAS Test Site to track small UAS, enabling drone operators to conduct beyond visual line-of-sight flights. Once operational, the network is expected to be expanded throughout the state of North Dakota and, eventually, the entire U.S.
Officials credit the unique amenities offered at Grand Sky and in North Dakota for the state’s ranking among the top locations in the U.S. for UAS testing and development. Nick Flom, executive director of the NPUAS Test Site, said low traffic and population density, along with the state-of-the-art radar being installed at Grand Sky are significant factors in making the site ideal for BVLOS testing. Low cost of operations and close proximity to a sizable population center have benefited existing Grand Sky tenants. Existing infrastructure to enable fast tenancy and low cost of operations provide further incentive for UAS companies to conduct operations at Grand Sky.